Sport in the UK

Part of Social Security – in the House of Commons at 8:17 pm on 4th February 2019.

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Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales) 8:17 pm, 4th February 2019

I could not agree more. As the hon. Lady is a former international rugby player herself, her point is even stronger, and I will echo that in my later comments.

I have been seeking an Adjournment debate on this issue without success, so I will outline some of the issues now. The Glaswegian Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson spoke about the difficulty towards the end of his fantastic career as he battled depression caused by a gruelling training regime. He made the decision to retire, and it was the right decision for him. After some difficulties, he is now an example of an athlete who has made the transition well, as he has now built a successful career as a leading coach, but his story is by no means the norm. Such difficulties have been relatively common in football, but, since the advent of UK Sport lottery funding, they have become more widespread in other sports, and the current cliff-edge approach to UK Sport funding in no way helps the scenario.

Last year, the BBC reported on examples of athletes finding the transition difficult. Rower Mark Hunter competed at three Olympic games, winning gold in Beijing and silver in London:

“It doesn’t matter how good you are, how much money you earn—you have to learn to cope with that loss of purpose. Athletes think everyone cares about what you are doing but most people don’t care until you are performing at the highest level.

In Athens in 2004 I came last and that was my darkest point. I had no money, I had nothing. I used to drive down back roads thinking, ‘if I crash I wouldn’t care right now.’
I didn’t tell my parents but I was lucky I had so many friends around me to help me escape. I’d gone to the ultimate event and come last. We came last, the funding is cut and it’s like ‘get out’...I had no money, I had nothing.”

Ollie Philips was world rugby sevens player of the year in 2009:

“Because I had to retire through injury, it felt as though I had been robbed of my rights and the dreams that I was hoping to achieve. Once I realised that ‘right I am now not a rugby player any more’, there was a really tough period. It’s such a destructive experience on a personal level—everything is affected by it. That experience of feeling valued and adored. Suddenly you’re not as good;
you’re not in the limelight. And as a result you chase highs and ego boosts. They give you a kick in the short term, but the highs are high and the lows are very low and you don’t know how to get out of them.

There were times when I looked at myself and thought, ‘I don’t want to be here.’
I’ve probably accepted not being a sportsman but have I truly accepted that it’s not me anymore? Maybe not entirely.”

Switch the Play, which has presented to the all-party parliamentary group on Scottish sport, is an excellent social enterprise—it is shortly to become a charity—dedicated to improving the support offered to elite and aspiring athletes as they transition to a life outside sport, and it has done excellent work on this issue.

One of those athletes is Beth Tweddle, who most Members will know. She is an Olympic bronze medallist, a triple world champion, a six-time European champion and a Commonwealth champion—the list goes on. Beth made the decision to retire after a glittering career, but she was seriously concerned about what she would do with herself after focusing on gymnastics for 21 years. Switch the Play helped to provide her with training, and she found the confidence to become a company director for Total Gymnastics.

Research by Abertay University’s Professor David Lavallee shows that athletes who engage in planning for their future feel less stressed and are better able to focus on their sporting performance. The study also found that the levels of support provided to athletes in planning their retirement can also influence their performance. Switch the Play and others do excellent work, but we cannot expect such organisations to give that peace of mind and care alone.

Sporting bodies and, of course, the Government therefore have a duty of care to our athletes and must ensure that they have all the support, training and opportunities they require to live life and build a career after retirement, whether that be in their sport or in any other sector. I hope the Minister will meet Switch the Play and me to discuss this issue further.

Most Members, and particularly Mr Speaker, could not have failed to be moved by Andy Murray’s press conference, in which it was clear he is very much struggling to come to terms with his possible upcoming retirement. I am sure the House will join me in welcoming his recent successful hip operation, which at the very least will give Andy a much better quality of life, without pain, to spend with his children. Of course, we all hope the operation will enable Andy to continue playing top-level tennis, but, if it fails, he has an astonishing career to look back on. He is a two-time Wimbledon champion, a US Open champion, a Davis cup winner, twice Olympic champion and, probably most impressive of all, a world No. 1 in the era of Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

I can only hope that Andy is as proud of himself as Scotland is of him. Without a shadow of doubt, Andy is Scotland’s greatest ever sportsman or sportswoman. What can we say to Scotland’s, and probably the UK’s, greatest ever but thank you? Thank you for the memories, the inspiration and the sheer joy that he has given to the nation.